"A Local and National Treasure": Managing the Dunes Park, 1984-1995
"Time has helped to calm the anger," observed the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council in 1996, "and the National Lakeshore is now widely regarded as a local and national treasure." By the late 1990s the lakeshore was annually visited by more than a million people. Sleeping Bear Dunes had emerged as the premier recreational attraction in the popular northwest Michigan tourist area. The broad expanse of publicly owned beaches, the roadside agricultural landscapes, and the sparkling hills of wind-blown sand were a striking reminder "of what the region once was, and of the beauty lost." A broad consensus emerged by the 1990s that had the lakeshore not been established when it was, that this most beautiful portion of the Great Lakes region might well have been subdivided and condoized beyond recognition. In the twenty-five years since coming to northwest Michigan the National Park Service had succeeded in meeting the Congressional mandate to protect the Sleeping Bear from "developments and uses which would destroy the scenic beauty and natural character of the area."
What most visitors to the lakeshore did not appreciate were the conflicts, sacrifices, and choices thrust upon the park service and the people of the dunes country to create the landscape so enjoyed each summer. Sleeping Bear had not been a wilderness for nearly two centuries. Between 1970 when the lakeshore was created and mid-1980s the National Park Service gradually established direct control, or indirect administration in the case of the several hundred lease holders, over the roughly 71,000 acres of the park. In managing all of these lands the Congressional mandate to "preserve" the land had to be balanced with the right of the public to "enjoy" the dune country. During the 1980s and 1990s park managers at Sleeping Bear were continually faced with the nagging question of preservation: what time is this place? Is there a particular moment in vegetation succession, the mythic "climax," that is the goal of preservation? Will the public visit and appreciate a landscape defined strictly by geologic time, or will historical experience be revealed through the land? Whose story will emerge along the beaches, trails, and roadsides of the Sleeping Bear: farmers, mariners, Ottawa Indians, vacation cottagers? For the park service these landscape-shaping decisions have been, by necessitity, as much political, economic, and legal as they are aesthetic, ecological, or historical.
For years the Traverse Bay area has promoted itself as "God's Country." Anyone who has known the region's crisp clear mornings or spectacular Lake Michigan sunsets would be inclined to agree. The dunes have been bathed red in the alpine glow of those sunsets for thousands of years, but for the past generation a significant portion of "God's Country" has been a landscape managed by the National Park Service. The sometimes mundane, all too human process by which federal officials and local people make decisions to shape the Sleeping Bear area is the ongoing theme of the lakeshore's history.
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